The lines –
When the light first dawned on my spirit,
And my soul was truly blest
– are familiar to those who sing, 'Let Me Tell The Old, Old Story,' a hymn penned by Elisha Hoffman (1839-1929).
As far as the German Reformer Martin Luther was concerned, this "light first dawned" on his spirit as a result of coming to understand the proper meaning of Romans 1:17: "The just [righteous] shall live by faith."
As a monk in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Luther was extraordinarily diligent. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices – going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. As he later commented, "If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I."
Though he sought by these means to love God fully, he found no consolation. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God: "When it is touched by this passing inundation of the eternal, the soul feels and drinks nothing but eternal punishment."
During his early years, whenever Luther read what would become the famous 'Reformation text' – Romans 1:17 – his eyes were drawn not to the word faith, but to the word righteous. Who, after all, could "live by faith" but those who were already righteous? The text was clear on the matter: "the righteous shall live by faith."
Luther remarked, "I hated that word, 'the righteousness of God,' by which I had been taught according to the custom and use of all teachers ... [that] God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner."
The young Luther could not live by faith because he was not righteous. Well did he know it.
Meanwhile, he was ordered to take his doctorate in the Bible and become a professor at Wittenberg University. During lectures on the Psalms (in 1513 and 1514) and a study of the Book of Romans, he began to see a way through his dilemma.
"At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I ... began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… . Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."
... The light of the Gospel of grace had "dawned on his spirit"!